"Recognize whose lands these are on which we stand."—Joy Harjo (1)
In "An American Sunrise," Poet Laureate Joy Harjo reminds us that Native Americans are still very much alive, that their culture still thrives after centuries of genocide and neglect:
"We are still America. We
know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die
This reminder is trenchant in a time of upheaval when racism in all forms is being strongly challenged and confronted all over our country and around the world. Many Americans seem to have forgotten or be unaware that the original inhabitants of our continent still live among us and continue to practice their customs and arts, including poetry. The appointment of Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as Poet Laureate is therefore a very timely and welcome development.
Given the many Native poets living and working today, and following up on last month's celebration of African American poets, I now want to highlight the poetry of some of the First Nations' finest voices.
Louise Erdrich (Ojibwe) is well known as a novelist, but she is also an excellent poet. In "The Strange People," she assumes the voice of a female antelope, a trickster and siren in Native mythology.
"All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.
Not with weapons, not with a kiss, not with a look.
Not even with his goodness.
If a man was never to lie to me. Never lie me.
I swear I would never leave him." (3)
By making the antelope into a metaphor for women of all races seeking honesty, Erdrich demonstrates the ongoing relevance of ancient Native stories.
Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan also draws on Native mythology in her version of a creation story, "The History of Red."
there was some other order of things
but in dreams of darkest creation.
"Red is the human house
I come back to at night
swimming inside the cave of skin
that remembers bison.
"This life in the fire, I love it.
I want it,
this life." (4)
The late Lovelock Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis writes of the sadness of modern Native life in "The Sacred Circle."
"Numanah, Grandfather, grant me the grace
of a new song far from this lament
of lame words and fossils of a losing game.
"In junkie alleyways I whispered of forgotten arrows
in the narrow passages of my own discarded history.
Then, when I was old enough
I ran back to Indian land.
Now I'm thinking of running from here." (5)
Layli Long Soldier is a citizen of the Ogalala Lakota Nation. Krista Tippet in On Being writes, "Her award-winning first book of poetry, WHEREAS, is a response to the U.S. government's official apology to Native peoples in 2009, which was done so quietly, with no ceremony, that it was practically a secret." (6) The title poem is a long catalog of disappointments regarding the "apology," a sort of parody of official declarations. Some excerpts
"Whereas like a bird darting from an oncoming semi my mind races to the Apology's assertion 'While the establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place';
"Whereas I could've but didn't broach the subject of 'genocide' the absence of this term from the Apology and its rephrasing as 'conflict' for example;
"WHEREAS the word whereas means it being the case that, or considering that, or while on the contrary; is a qualifying or introductory statement, a conjunction, a connector. Whereas sets the table. The cloth. The saltshakers and plates. Whereas calls me to the table because Whereas precedes and invites. I have come now. I'm seated across from a Whereas smile. Under pressure of formalities, I fidget, I shake my legs. I'm not one for these smiles, Whereas I have spent my life in unholding. What do you mean by unholding? Whereas asks and since Whereas rarely asks, I am moved to respond, Whereas, I have learned to exist and exist without your formality, saltshakers, plates, cloth. Without the slightest conjunctions to connect me. Without an exchange of questions, without the courtesy of answers. This has become mine, this unholding. Whereas, with or without the setup, I can see the dish being served.
Whereas let us bow our heads in prayer now, just enough to eat;" (7)
This is powerful and especially resonant now in light of the renewed call for reparations to African-Americans. One wonders when reparations to Native peoples will be broached.
Activism often goes hand in hand with artistic creation and the work of the multifaceted Santee Dakota artist, singer, actor, and poet, John Trudell, who died in 2015, is no exception. Trudell was among the Native activists who occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969-70.
"Now you want us
To cry your tears for you," he writes in "Cry Your Tears."
"After we've already bled for you
Already been dead to you
Now you want us
To cry your tears for you"
After a list of the many outrages committed against Native Americans, he concludes:
"Way this story is unfolding
We may end up crying together
As in crying at the same time
But we're short on tears to cry for you
With all these tears to cry of our own
Now you want us
To cry your tears for you" (8)
J.P. Dancing Bear too presents Native American history in its glory and grief:
"For us, there was never a Harry Houdini
who escaped from the boxes or from behind
the Bureau of Land Management fences.
There was Jim Thorpe, who ran in circles
better than anyone else. He ran like a caged wolf.
That was something we all knew.
"Those boys who went to war
and fought like there might be a freedom hidden
somewhere in blood. They came back to our open-
armed ghostfathers, their faces yellowed
and parched by the long poverty of their lives.
Our boys went back to being unneeded as a stone—
waiting in the desert, petroglyph for all that is lost." (9)
However, the Native story is not all sadness and loss. Dancing Bear also writes of the wisdom and resilience of his people:
"I study the body of birds until I am a body of birds.
I am a private library of knowledge, being lifted
by instinct, called to by the magnetism of the earth.
"When you say the color, yellow,
you miss the point of my existence completely.
I have never been about the choices of all my ancestors,
I live with each of my decisions precisely as they are made."
("Yellow Flock") (10)
Finally, like many Americans, Mojave-Latinx poet Natalie Diaz straddles cultures. Fluent in three languages (Mojave-Spanish-English), Diaz speaks in a fierce contemporary voice:
"I begin at the lake,
clean once, now drained
I am murk—I am not clean
everything has already happened
always the lake is just up ahead in the poem,
my mouth is the moon, I bring it down
lay it over the lake of her thighs
I am warm lamping ax
hewing water's tender shell
slant slip, entering like light, surrounded
into another skin
I am where there was yet no lake
yet we made it, make it still
to drink and clean ourselves on"
Diaz won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2018. Her most recent book, Post-Colonial Love Poem, navigates intersectional terrain, moving between Native, Latinx, and Queer worlds.
The Poetry Foundation has an excellent collection of Native poets to explore. (12)
Now that the Washington, D.C., NFL team has finally agreed to change its racist name, this is a good time to explore the work of these and many other fine Native American poets.